Top five free agent targets for Winnipeg

Players like Ted Laurent, Bear Woods, Roy Finch, Zack Evans, and S.J. Green would make great additions to any CFL team. Sadly, in a salary cap league, fans need to temper their expectations heading into free agency — dollars are limited and teams need to spend accordingly.

While the list below by no means includes the five best players who may become available next week, all would make great — and, in some cases, inexpensive — additions to a Blue Bomber team that is looking to improve upon a disappointing finish in last year’s playoffs.

5. DL Daryl Waud, Toronto

The Bombers drafted Faith Ekakitie first overall a year ago for the presumed purpose of starting a national player at nose tackle in the near future. That didn’t pan out in Ekakitie’s rookie season, but one has to assume that it’s still the plan moving forward.

Enter Waud. The former second-round draft pick has had injury problems over the past two seasons, but possesses great size (6’5, 290) and is still just 24 years of age. If Jake Thomas isn’t re-signed by the Bombers, Waud would make an excellent young pairing for Ekakitie should the Bombers look to start a Canadian along the interior of the defensive line.

My gut tells me that Waud is unlikely to leave southern Ontario — he’s a Hamilton native who attended Western University — but he’s a good positional fit for a Winnipeg club that’s looking for a bargain.

Other options: Michael Atkinson, Hamilton; Evan Gill, Hamilton

4. DB Joe Burnett, Calgary

Last year I wrote that the Bombers should add Jovon Johnson to help solidify a young secondary, a suggestion that some found unpalatable. Winnipeg needed to stabilize the secondary with a veteran presence, I argued, and Johnson would have a chip on his shoulder after not being offered a contract extension in Montreal.

As we now know, Johnson signed with Saskatchewan where he enjoyed a great season at field-side cornerback. Meanwhile, the Bombers’ secondary was repeatedly victimized for huge gains with CFL rookies Roc Carmichael and Brian Walker often the targets of such big plays.

Burnett was upset about being a healthy scratch in the Grey Cup and, at 31, might be looking for a change of scenery. With T.J. Heath likely departing via free agency and Moe Leggett questionable for the start of training camp, adding the crafty veteran would be an excellent move.

The Bombers have already added some experience to their secondary this winter in former B.C. Lions Steven Clarke and Anthony Gaitor, but you can never have too many veteran defensive backs. Burnett has played every position in the secondary and there’s tremendous value in that.

Other options: Brandon Stewart, Montreal; Dominique Ellis, Hamilton

3. REC Nic Demski, Saskatchewan

Matt Coates came on strong late in the season with a 100-yard performance in the West Semi-Final, but the Bombers could still do with adding some Canadian receiving talent. Enter Demski, a local product who Bomber fans wanted to see end up in blue and gold before the Riders nabbed him in the first round of the 2015 CFL draft.

Demski got off to a strong start this past season, recording fourteen receptions for 169 yards and a touchdown in his first two games. He went on to record just 53 more yards in seven contests, hampered by injuries most of the way.

Winnipeg needs to improve its national receiving depth as well as its overall receiving talent. Should he find a way remain healthy, Demski could fill both needs for his hometown team.

Other options: REC Jake Harty, Ottawa; REC Cory Watson, Edmonton

2. REC Luke Tasker, Hamilton

Winnipeg boasts a dynamic offence — Andrew Harris and Timothy Flanders are both excellent dual-threats, Weston Dressler is a future hall of famer, and Darvin Adams is quickly establishing himself as an elite CFL pass catcher. What’s missing is a second down target — a possession receiver who isn’t afraid to take a shot over the middle.

He’s not as big as most second down specialists (Ernest Jackson, Manny Arceneaux, S.J. Green, etc.), but Tasker has proven he’s as reliable as any receiver in the CFL. Targeted second-most in the league last year, Tasker caught 104 passes for 1,167 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017.

Perhaps most importantly, Tasker has remained relatively healthy throughout his five-year CFL career. Considering Dressler and Adams have missed time over the past two seasons, Tasker would be worth a solid investment from a Winnipeg club that needs to provide Matt Nichols with more security in the receiving corps.

Other options: DaVaris Daniels, Calgary; Diontae Spencer, Ottawa

1. A damn middle linebacker

The Bombers have been in need of a game-changing middle linebacker since Henoc Muamba’s departure for the NFL in February of 2014. Ian Wild, Khalil Bass, Sam Hurl, Ejiro Kuale, and Kyle Knox have all seen spot duty at the ‘MIKE’ position, achieving varying degrees of success.

Fortunately for Winnipeg, there are a number of very good middle linebackers set to become available on February 13th and it’s imperative that the Bombers find a way to sign one.

Hamilton’s Larry Dean, a pending free agent, has quickly emerged as arguably the best middle linebacker in the CFL. Toronto’s Bear Woods might be the league’s hardest hitter. Ottawa’s Taylor ‘Tank’ Reed would also be a candidate for that title.

A dark horse candidate for the job could be Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt.

Sherritt missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Assuming he’s back to full health — and I’m betting he soon will be — the former CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player could be a great discount option to solidify the Blue Bomber defence. The fact that Sherritt is tight with Blue Bomber quarterback Matt Nichols also doesn’t hurt.

In any case, adding a middle linebacker is a must for the blue and gold. Make it happen, Mr. Walters.

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